In a 2014 study published in the journal Behavioral Medicine, Dr. Andersen and her colleagues at Fred Hutchinson found that 75% of women at high risk for BRCA mutations were unaware that these gene mutations increase chance of ovarian cancer.
What is more well known, however, is that BRCA1 and BRCA2 increase risk for breast cancer.
Fast facts about ovarian cancer
- Ovarian cancer is most commonly diagnosed among woman aged 63 and older
- Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer deaths among American women
- African-American women are at greater risk for ovarian cancer than white American women.
Surveying 1,900 Seattle-area women ages 35-80 with family histories that suggest BRCA mutations, Dr. Andersen’s study found that only about 22% of high-risk women and 7.4% of moderate-risk women were aware that they were at increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.
Given that the respondents were located in an area that has high levels of education and health awareness, as well as good access to genetic counseling and testing, Dr. Andersen hypothesizes that awareness among women in areas with less education and fewer resources may be even worse.
So why is this at-risk group largely unaware of their risk for ovarian cancer, which Dr. Andersen describes as being “in many ways, the more frightening cancer”?
Dr. Andersen suggests it could partly be an issue of media representation.
“Sometimes people write about the BRCA mutations as genes for breast and ovarian cancer but often they don’t, and even when an article does include ovarian cancer as a risk, often only breast cancer makes the headline,” she says.
However, breast cancer is the more common cancer – about 1 in 8 American women develop breast cancer during their lifetime.
Also, while a BRCA1 mutation will increase risk of ovarian cancer by 50%, the increased risk of breast cancer from this mutation is higher, at 87%.
“Even in families with multiple family members affected by BRCA1- or BRCA2-linked cancers, most of the cancers in a family – frequently all of the cancers in the family – have been breast cancer,” admits Dr. Andersen. “Of course people pay attention to that.”